Sunday, September 22, 2013

When things go Wrong in Space

Illustration of Cygnus near ISS.

Space Exploration is a risky business. Just talk to Orbital Sciences! It was just last Tuesday, Sep. 18, when the Antares rocket blasted off from the Virginia Wallops Island launch facility on the Atlantic coast, lifting the new Cygnus cargo pod into space. Only the second company to launch a private-industry spacecraft to the station, Orbital Sciences hoped to make docking with the space station after several days of flight testing navigational and maneuvering systems before making a final approach. 

Antares rocket lifts into a perfect sky.

The Antares rocket flew beautifully, placing the capsule into its planned orbit after a great show on NASA TV. Viewers were able to watch the company's mission control screen graphics show the departing stages and protective fairing, followed by the last stage placing the cargo ship on its correct trajectory.

MIssion Control operations screen. Antares second stage firing maneuvering thrusters.

Once in orbit, tests began on the various spacecraft systems to ensure a safe approach and docking with the station. It was on its last step of maneuvering for docking this morning when the engineers noted a flaw in the GPS programming. The GPS system ensures a fully-controlled robotic ground-controlled docking without significant risk to bumping the station, such as happened to the Russian MIR station last century when a Progress capsule smacked into a station module.

Wallops Island mission control. I need to find out if this is the launch control or Orbital Sciences' mission control.

Just recently the word came down, a delay of 48 hours while engineers work to correct the glitch before they try another docking attempt. OS is pretty confident the software problem will be repaired and the next attempt will occur on Tuesday. Our hopes go with the Cygnus team. NASA Spaceflight has a great article on the procedures used to approach and dock with the sttation here:

Meanwhile, WAY OUT in space, it appears that the Deep Impact space probe is beyond repair from the ground, and NASA has declared the mission ended. It was a valuable mission exploring comets and asteroids and managed to go beyond its planned mission parameters. Truly a successful space mission.

Tempel 1 moments after being hit by a probe from Deep Impact spacecraft.

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